Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Quick comment on Ophelia Benson's TAM withdrawal

How true! Thanks to John R. Ellis
Ophelia Benson claims to have been receiving threatening email messages about TAM today.

This is outrageous.

I have sat pretty much on the periphery of this debate in the hope that it might blow over, but this?

People's security is of paramount importance in a large event like TAM, and I am sure the JREF take it very seriously (even if a little ham-fisted at times), but for speakers to receive threats in email that make them not want to attend at all, then there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

I do not know what the nature of these threats are, Ophelia apparently doesn't care to share them [UPDATE: She has now posted the emails here], but I trust they are of a serious enough nature for her to warrant her decision to drop out of TAM, and to report them to the necessary authorities.

This cannot be tolerated.

But what is more disturbing for me personally, is that she has capitulated to the threats. They win.

I really feel for anyone that has been threatened, but I cannot condone her pulling out of the very conference that gives her the opportunity to confront these assholes and tell them they will never hold sway over our security.

Ophelia, I really hope you change your mind. I am sure there are a number of options available to you to enhance your safety on site.


  1. As someone who's been stalked, received some rather nasty threats, and then received a rather stunning amount of indifference from a few cops who told me there was nothing they could do unless the guy actually assaulted me, I completely disagree with you.

    But then, I'm just a girl. What do I know about being forced to protect myself from malicious idiots intent on causing me physical or mental harm?
    Collapse this comment

    1. It's not that your disagreement is lost on me; it isn't. But allowing the bullys to win - and in withdrawing Ophelia has let them win - she does nothing for the cause she claims to defend.

      I cannot comment on your own experience; I know nothing more than you have just provided me with. But the question remains; how do you combat this antisocial, violent and illegal behaviour whilst still exerting your freedom?

    2. Tris, I think you place way too much stock in defending an organisation that has clearly demonstrated they care little for women's voices or experience.

      If I were a well-known speaker with the ability to draw conference attendees, I'd rather bring them with me to a convention I actually wanted to support. It's hardly "letting the bullies win" to know that I'd be cutting into JREF's fundraising for this year by not attending and by people requesting refunds because I wouldn't be present.

      Do you not see the power of voting with one's wallet?

    3. I think what is necessary is someone who is willing to put themselves in danger. If a person claims that fire is not hot, sometimes the only way to convince them otherwise is to put your hand in the fire and show them the burns.

    4. I feel no need to endanger my safety and life in order to prove that some threats need to be taken seriously. We only get one life, and I happen to value mine as much as I value the lives of others.

    5. Christine. I don't deny that there are plenty of assholes in the sceptic community; there will be assholes in every community. Neither do I believe that their asshole-like behaviour should be tolerated; I made that much clear in my post. I have also conceded that JREF have a long way to go in formulating a coherent anti-harassment policy, something they should have done long ago.

      My point is, though, that withdrawing from these events means the bullies win even if other events are more concerned with policy on such matters. Ophelia Benson has lost the opportunity to stand up to them (with my full support, no less). Even with JREF's apparent indifference to the situation, no one wins but the bullies. Ophelia has one less platform from which to speak, JREF becomes an anachronistic white elephant and the bullies - regardless of their persuasions have, simply put, won.

    6. Shadowsong. I guess, in a round about way, that is what I am saying. It is unfortunate that circumstances lead one to such eventualities, but rights are rarely easily won, and the people we hold as courageous and inspiring in establishing these rights have held their hands in the fire for a substantially longer time than the majority of us have.

      It is making a stand for what you believe in, rather than labouring in the backwaters, shouting the odds in a distant glow from where the fire burns brightest and the danger need its most serious attention.

    7. Tris, I think you and I have very different definitions of "winning". IMO, JREF/TAM has driven the point home that they don't care about the safety and well-being of female attendees. This will hurt the organisation's bottom line, and they are the ones making it clear that they have no intention of stomping bullying. Hurting their fundraising efforts is a serious win.

      If TAM was the only skeptics meeting out there, I might agree with you. However, we now have so many high-quality events that TAM is merely one of many - why should people go to it if it's full of bullies and idiots? That's hardly an event where anything rational will be discussed. If JREF wants people to come to their event, let them demonstrate they take safety and harassment issues seriously. If enough people refuse to attend TAM, that's a distinct possibility - and that would be a final victory as opposed to a momentary skirmish in a longer battle.

      Considering the number of women who so far have written to JREF and demanded refunds for their TAM fees, I think it's a pretty solid step in driving them to accept responsibility for their mess.

    8. "It is unfortunate that circumstances lead one to such eventualities, but rights are rarely easily won..."

      I would like to point out that we're not actually fighting about rights. What we're fighting about is whether women are people and should be treated as such.

      Unfortunately, there's a very vocal minority that rejects this incredibly radical concept.

    9. Again, I appreciate your points; they are all perfectly valid. Perhaps we are looking at things from a different perspective, and having considered that, I wonder if we both haven't missed something fundamental to the subject at hand.

      Assuming the base issue here is one of personal security (again, regardless of gender), the question must be asked; is TAM a convention that is a viable threat to one's personal safety?

      I don't think that JREF's heretofore reluctance (or even refusal) to introduce a coherent and meaningful anti-harassment policy is the issue given such a question. If there is a viable threat to personal safety, I don't think an anti-harassment policy is going to stem such behaviour.

      This, of course, does not mean that JREF shouldn't introduce a coherent and meaningful anti-harassment policy, just that if the underlying problem is one of personal safety, they should be looking elsewhere to solve the problem; and I fully accept that they have not approached this in any meaningful and coherent manner.

      A perceived threat is not the same as an actual threat. I have lived in the mire that is Muslim extremism in the southern Philippines and have lived with the very genuine threat of abduction or bombing by Abu Sayyef and other militant Islamist groups. Call me stupid if you will (and one Foreign Office official did just that), but I refused to be bullied by these terrorists despite the clear and present danger to my personal safety; indeed, my own existence. Putting this into perspective, I find it churlish to think that TAM is a viable threat to personal safety, and appears to be more of an exercise in establishing protocols that do nothing to countenance genuine personal safety concerns. In fact, I think it has very little - if anything - to do with personal safety at all (depending on how we define personal safety, of course).

      So if it is not about a genuine concern for personal safety, what is it about? Perhaps I'll let you ponder that for now, and we can continue when you have digested what I have put forward so far.

    10. tried to post this earlier but i must have failed the captcha. there were actually two points to my previous post. the obvious one was that sometimes you must put yourself in danger to forward your goal. but the second one is that we should not think badly of someone just because they aren't willing to get themselves hurt for their cause.

  2. If I was a speaker and got threats, I would change venues. Women have been fighting this crap for decades and we still get an amazing amount of negative comments. As Amanda Marcotte says, whenever a woman lodges a complaint, she is working from being considered as a liar (I'm paraphrasing) even if she has evidence.

    I would really like to know why some "skeptics" take the attitude that women are stupid, lying, fun killers. At least religion has some kind of justification. 

    1. It is disgusting that complaints are treated from the outset as lies, especially if there is also evidence. It is simply not tolerable in a modern and supposedly egalitarian society. Frankly, I am horrified by JREF's apparent indifference to formulating a coherent anti-harassment policy. Their influence will wane for want of one.

      I, too, would like to know why some sceptics take such a banal and out of touch attitude. They are clearly not overly sceptical of their own behaviour.

      Religion may have its justification, but justification - depending on how it is played out - is not always rational. I could justify killing someone because they wore knee socks. It is a justification, just not a reasonable one.

  3. I see what you mean by "withdrawing is letting them win", but your assertion makes me uncomfortable. There is a clear parallel in my mind to other situations where women are harassed. Consider, for example, a woman who walks home alone at night and then receives harassing letters from someone who says he watches her on her way home. Catching a ride would be withdrawing from a field; but if she decided not to be intimidated and then was assaulted, there would be a strong assertion from a particular segment of society that she was asking for it and should have known better.

    If you know you will be harassed, and you suspect that those who should have the responsibility to defend you will not, then it's better to be "the girl who let them win" rather than "the girl who got what she deserved". You'll lose in public opinion either way; might as well lose without having to deal with a douchebag in person.

    1. ^^ This. In addition, we cannot fight every single fight out there because we each only have a limited amount of time and resources with which to do so. No one is required to stand up to a pile of bullies when so few official people are willing to provide support.

    2. Shadowsong. I see your point, but the parallel, I feel, is unwarranted.

      A field on your way home - whilst a public place - is not likely to be a venue where thousands of people gather in the spotlight of the worlds media.

      It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to avoid such situations, but what isn't reasonable is providing the relevant authorities with a note (evidence) only to be dismissed as a liar.

      Now extrapolating this into Ophelia's decision not to attend TAM 2012, it is perfectly reasonable to do so and her evidence in the form of emails should be afforded the gravitas that their content deserves. It is quite apparent that JREF's position is left wanting on this matter, but in withdrawing before a coherent policy has been introduced in light of this evidence is - as you say - letting the bullies win.

      I would feel awful, having said all this, if something terrible were to happen in the 'field' of TAM 2012 (note I am not specifying gender here), which is why JREF really ought to step up to the plate and take Ophelia's situation seriously, but I am reasonably confident that despite JREF's laissez faire attitude to date, that TAM will be a safe location, even if JREF are seen to be wishy-washy on their anti-harassment policy (or lack of one).

      If they cannot guarantee safety - with or without an anti-harassment policy in place - then no-one of any stripe will attend. I suppose it comes down to what we agree on as safety.

    3. Perhaps a closer comparison would be to a crowded subway car? Plenty of people watching, so it's more of a public space. If someone threatens to harass you on your way to work, do you choose to take the train anyway rather than getting a ride or working from home? If you get a ride, you're abandoning the fight. If you take the train, and someone tries to grab your crotch, then what? You shout "Pervert", of course... and then everyone else on the train looks at you like YOU'RE the crazy one. And when people find out that you had been told someone would be looking for you on the train, they say you were asking for it by not taking an alternate route - everyone knows that trains are full of gropers!

      By denying that harassment exists at JREF, the management has shown themselves to be the sort of train that sees the person shouting "pervert" as the one who's out of line.

    4. I am unaware of JREF having actually denied that harassment exists at TAM. Do you have a link to such a denial? I think it would be an important quote to introduce to this discussion.

      As I said in the post, I have kept pretty much on the periphery of this subject heretofore, but I am certainly willing to take the fight to them if they are in active denial of something that is clearly something people have genuine concerns about.

    5. Tris: Please see DJ Grothe's comment on one of PZ Myer's blog posts:

      "But one point of clarification, and to correct an important misstatement of fact in your post: no one reported any incident of assault or sexual harassment at our speakers reception last year, and no JREF staff were told about nor knew of the incident until yesterday. All we knew about was that someone was removed from the speaker reception because he wasn’t permitted to be there, and was apparently drunk. In her blog post and in further comments, Ashley says she didn’t feel like the harassment was worth reporting to JREF staff or hotel staff at the time, nor did she nor anyone else mention it in one of the TAM attendee surveys. I find this regrettable."

      According to Ashley Miller, that isn't what happened.

    6. I don't see the problem. It is clearly a breakdown of communication rather than a denial that the events transpired as Ashley describes them. And there is nothing I can see that warrants believing that JREF doesn't take sexual aggression seriously.

      Ashley didn't report the event and admits it. Just because DJ was there doesn't mean to say that he was aware of the full nature of unfolding events. I feel he makes it very clear that until this all kicked off on the blogosphere, no report of harassment of any form was made by or to anyone.

      Am I missing something?

    7. Here's a post recounting how DJ himself responded to a harassment incident at TAM9 and kicked the harasser out of a reception - and then later claimed there were no incidents of harassment.
      and a follow up with more detail:

    8. And one more. I think this is a completely separate incident from Ashley Miller's report:
      This person also talked directly to DJ, and submitted a written report.

    9. If I am learning one thing about this whole sorry story, it is that DJ is not the right guy to be administering security.

      This is easily fixed by hiring a professional security firm that conforms to a coherent, meaningful and well-circulated policy on what is considered to be acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.

      If it is true that Lee did report monopod guy, and JREF failed to even notice that a report specifically noting the actions of a guy with a camera on a stick had been made, then their negligence is palpable. They have no excuse. In light of this, they should act on people's concerns without further ado.

      But getting back to the subject of the post, I am still unconvinced that TAM is a threat to personal safety, and I don't feel that the previous events we are rehashing now are of any direct relevance to Ophelia's current threats. If she hasn't reported these threats to the police (regardless of how well or badly they are received), she makes herself an intrinsic part of the problem. Shipping out to another venue, without giving due diligence to circumstances that are a genuine criminal act (I am making no claims about her right to do this one way or another) is tantamount to one of two things;

      1. she has accepted the criminal behaviour levelled at her, but doesn't deem it important enough to report such activity to the police, or
      2. she does not accept the criminal behaviour levelled at her, reports it to the police, and thinks the most effective way to send a message that such behaviour is unacceptable, is to deride JREF for matters which should - in all good conscience - be dealt with by the police.

      It doesn't matter if the police don't take her seriously; that is a wholly separate debate. She wishes JREF to take harassment seriously, but gives herself a free pass on her own responsibility to society as a whole.

      If I have a reasonable handle on the underlying basis of my own post, then her behaviour is seriously questionable; as are her supporter's.

  4. "I really feel for anyone that has been threatened, but I cannot condone her pulling out of the very conference that gives her the opportunity to confront these assholes and tell them they will never hold sway over our security."

    You can't condone my decision not to go to an event where I've been told it's very likely that I'll be shot? (That was the threat.) You can't condone it? Are you serious?

    And the people at JREF aren't taking it seriously at all, in fact they brushed me off.

    1. Having seen the text of these emails now, and learning that you are not going to call the police, the only things I can draw from this revelation is that you have a curious understanding of what a threat is, and you do not warrant these threats to be anything other than misplaced advice that is not worthy of bothering the police with.

      By your apparent reckoning of a threat, my comments here are at best unwelcome, and at worst a veiled threat to shoot you! Let me reassure you that whilst I am not responsible for how unwelcome my opinions are, none of them are threats of any kind. I simply do not recognise these emails you have received to be so much as worthy of further consideration.

      I have to say that I understand JREF's dismissal of them (and ostensibly your own dealings with them) as wholly reasonable. That said, I certainly do think that they should - in light of all the furore that has surrounded personal safety at TAM - make a very clear statement outlining a coherent and meaningful plan to deal with any and all security concerns. Something they confusingly seem reluctant to do.

      I genuinely think it is a shame that you will not be attending TAM; the event will be poorer for your absence.

  5. In case this audience is different than your G+ audience:

    1) Ophelia posted the threats today at her blog:

    2) A related Meme to the idea of ever dipping one's toe into Elevatorgate and it's evolution to Tamgate:


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